Liu Yandong (right) was passed over for a seat on China's Standing Committee.
Liu Yandong (right) was passed over for a seat on China’s Standing Committee.

Credit: Foreign and Commonwealth Office on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-ND 2.0).

BEIJING (WOMENSENEWS)–For the first time it seemed possible this fall that a woman could ascend to China’s most powerful governing body.

With connections to both the elite and populist factions within the Communist Party, impeccable credentials and a mild charisma, Liu Yandong was already the most influential woman in China as the lone female member of the 24-member Politburo. Analysts tipped her as a top contender for the Politburo’s Standing Committee with a shot at making history by taking a seat on the elite body that wields near complete authority over this nation of 1.3 billion.

But when the seven new members of the Standing Committee strode to their places at the front of the red stage in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People on Nov. 15, Liu, with her tall shining pompadour, trademark royal blue skirt suit and pearls, was not among them.

Leta Hong Fincher, a doctoral candidate at Beijing’s Tsinghua University studying gender equality, says government statements supporting gender equality are not backed up with sufficient action.

“They still haven’t named a woman to the Standing Committee,” she said. “There has not been any concrete achievement at all for women in the last couple of decades and there is evidence that the status of women is actually decreasing.”

With this month’s leadership change the percentage of women in the 205-member governing Central Committee has fallen from 6 percent to just 4.8 percent, only slightly more than in 1956. A second woman, Sun Chunlan, joined Liu on the Politburo, though most did not see this as compensation for the continued exclusion of women at the highest tier of government.

Unlike the worldwide stirring caused by Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 2008 bid for the presidential nomination, Liu’s disappointment went largely unnoticed by a younger generation of female students, writers and office workers interviewed by Women’s eNews.

‘Not as Sensitive’

At Beijing’s Renmin University, where Liu once studied sociology, 22-year-old accounting student Liu Zhejun shares the politician’s family name but is no relation.

“I think Chinese people are not as sensitive to this gender discrimination thing as Americans,” Liu, the student, said. “None of my friends even know about Liu Yandong. We don’t decide anything. It’s like a play. We watch and clap.”

The term “gender equality” occurred just once in the 33-page translation of outgoing President Hu Jintao’s report at the 18th Party Congress, a speech meant to lay out the ambitions of the party over the next five years. The reference appeared in a section on the social welfare of the elderly, disabled and “other entitled groups.”

The word “women” was mentioned just three times in the entire speech and it was not until the sixth paragraph of the 12th and final section of the report that the issue of women in politics was raised.

“We should make greater efforts to train and select outstanding young officials, attach importance to training and selecting officials from among women and ethnic minorities, and encourage young officials to work and gain experience in local communities and in hardship areas,” Hu said, according to a translation posted in the Global Times newspaper.

This bureaucratese comes in stark contrast to the slogans of Mao Zedong, who made women’s rights a founding ideal of the Communist Party and famously proclaimed that women “hold up half of the sky.”

In 1973, at the height of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, 10 years of chaos that punished intellectuals, deprived a generation of Chinese of education and gutted the country’s institutions, women played a more powerful role in government than they do today, taking more than a 10th of the seats on the Central Committee.

With Mao’s death, leaders repudiated his policies, including quotas for women in national politics, deeming them “undemocratic,” and women’s participation at all levels of government rapidly fell.

“Even public intellectuals, those people who always speak a lot about national policy or society, even they don’t think that women’s issues are important,” said Xiong Jing of the Beijing-based Media Monitor for Women advocacy group. “They think, we want democracy, we want human rights, but women’s rights? Just leave them behind; they’re not important. So it’s really hard for women’s rights to be seen by the public.”

Falling Finances

As China’s rising fortunes propel it into ever-hotter competition with the United States as the world’s largest economy, Chinese women have seen their finances fall relative to those of men.

Hong Fincher, of Tsinghua University, studies women’s participation in the country’s real estate sector, long seen as the most reliable investment for savings in a country where financial institutions and stock markets have yet to mature. As the sector has mushroomed to an estimated $17 trillion dollars, she said, women have lost out because of a tendency to register homes solely to men.

Across China, women earn between one half to two thirds of what men do, according to a 2010 national survey, despite outperforming men academically, according to a 2010 book published by the China Youth and Children Research Association.

Safety is also a problem. A government survey found that 1-in-4 married women in China reported being subjected to domestic violence. Over the past year widely publicized cases of forced abortions have ignited protests, forcing government officials to acknowledge that the issue persists.

Among the young women interviewed by Women’s eNews, the idea that power was unfeminine was pervasive.

“At our university there is a joke,” said 21-year-old Shao Yixue, who plans to pursue a graduate degree in art history overseas. “There are three genders: male, female and female Ph.D.”

Like so many grassroots organizations, independent women’s groups tend to be quashed by the government before they have time to transform such attitudes.

“We are so small and the government is too big,” said Xiong of Media Monitor for Women.

Creative Campaigning

In recent months, however, a new generation of activists, who, thanks to the one-child policy, have not had to sacrifice their educations to brothers, have used the Internet to wage creative campaigns to avoid government censure.

This summer, Xiong’s group used social media to organize the occupation of men’s toilets in cities across China to raise awareness about inadequate women’s facilities, drawing media coverage and winning promises for reform from some local governments.

Then, when several universities were found to be requiring higher scores for women than for men, the activists shaved their heads and collected pictures of the shaved scalps of their supporters on the Chinese micro-blog site Weiboa. Though the government meticulously censors what appears on Weiboa, it is far more difficult to cull specific pictures.

“Especially in the cities, girls have an equal chance to go to school,” said Xiong. “When they leave school and come to society, they find a lot of inequality and they are disappointed. They have learned to expect more and they are more willing to change than maybe their mothers or grandmothers.”

Zoe Alsop is a writer living in Beijing. She can be reached at [email protected]

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